Samuel A. Scarnato, who served two stints in the administration of the Orleans Parish public schools system, died Monday at his Algiers home. He was 85.
The son of an Italian-immigrant coal miner, Scarnato was born in Butler, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Butler High School.
He was an avid baseball player who met New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig when Gehrig played in an exhibition game against the Yankees’ Butler farm team in 1938. Gehrig advised Scarnato on his batting stance , and the young man never changed it . He later coached baseball as well.
Scarnato graduated from Slippery Rock State College and received a master’s degree in education from the University of Pittsburgh. He earned a doctorate in educational administration at the University of Michigan.
He met his future wife, Nancy Ryan, while working in Jackson, Michigan. They were married in 1958.
Gene Geisert , who also received his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, asked Scarnato to be his deputy when Geisert became superintendent of the Wilmington, Delaware, public school system. Together they helped turn the Wilmington system around, and Geisert asked Scarnato to join him again when Geisert became superintendent of New Orleans public schools.
Scarnato accepted and arrived in New Orleans in 1972.
The New Orleans system was in turmoil. White flight to the suburbs was taking its toll on the city’s tax base and on its school system, which was still in the process of desegregating under a federal court order.
Scarnato “dealt with many of the tricky problems” as the system tried to reach full desegregation and get itself out from the court’s control, Geisert said.
Scarnato also played an important role in negotiations with the teachers union, Geisert said.
“He was totally prepared. He had everything memorized and could answer any questions the union’s lawyer might ask,” he said.
“He was terrific, and I don’t think the school district ever realized how good they had it,” Geisert said. “He was a wizard at instructional techniques and working with people to improve their way of operating.”
Geisert, who left the New Orleans system in the early 1980s, said Scarnato was probably one of the best curriculum specialists in the country.
In 1983, Scarnato left New Orleans to become superintendent of the St. Louis Special School District. He later returned to the Orleans system as business manager, which Geisert said was not the best use of his talents.
“His forte was instructional leadership, and he was damned good at it,” Geisert said .
Scarnato retired from the school system in 1991.
He worked to establish the Louisiana Association of School Executives and assisted the Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana in negotiating benefits. He also helped establish the Louisiana Executive Service Corps.
Scarnato received the St. Louis Medallion from the Archdiocese of New Orleans and was a founding parishioner of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Algiers.
In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, David Scarnato; four daughters, Elizabeth Miller, Juliann Fangue, Joni Kobrock and Susan Wishlinski; a brother, Peter Scarnato; four sisters, Rose Magiffen, Isabell Navolio, Barbara diPippa and Lucy Rotunda; 14 grandchildren; and two great grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Monday at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, 6201 Stratford Place, Algiers. Visitation will begin at 10 a.m. Cremation will follow with interment at a later date.